Basic 8

Teach Coping in Healthy Ways

Teach athletes stress management, coping, problem-solving skills, and assertiveness so that they are able to deal with challenges in positive ways.

"Let us use sports to reinforce to a young girl that her feelings and thoughts are valuable, important, and worthy of being heard. We must teach her to accept her body and honor it as the place that houses her many talents. It is our adult responsibility to show our daughters how to turn obstacles into challenges and help them develop ways to respond to nervousness, fear, and anxiety."
–Dr. Caroline Silby

Graham, a star forward on his soccer team, recently suffered yet another injury- this time to his knee. With play-offs only six weeks away and his doctors predicting a minimum three-month recovery, Graham is very worried about not being able play. However, when anyone asks how he is doing, he says that he's fine and that "it's no big deal". In the past, Graham has always tried to come back from his injuries too soon, saying that he hates not being able to be out on the field with his team and feels like he's letting everyone down. He adds that "some part of me is always going to be injured, so what difference does playing make?" Graham's coaches are concerned. They know that if they let him come back early, they're risking a more serious injury, but if he’s just as miserable sitting out and insists on playing, what can they do?

BodySense Connection: The Pressure Loop

(Adapted from Dr. Caroline Silby, author of Games Girls Play)

A dedicated athlete may have difficulty coming to terms with injuries and coping with them in positive ways. The athlete may deny the severity of the injury, ignore pain, have low confidence in their ability to heal, or lose perspective on the long-term consequences of playing hurt.

Dealing with an injury may mean not being able to play. Being out of sport can have a significant impact on an athlete's feelings of self-worth. An athlete who ignores their body's signals for pain, hunger, fatigue, and fear, and who is over-invested in sport may also be at risk for disordered eating.

A great way to put an athlete in control of their sport experience is to teach which aspects of performance they can control (internal factors) and which aspects can not be controlled (external factors). Once an athlete learns to identify the internal factors within their control, they can use them to deal with external factors that may negatively affect them whenever a change or a stressful event occurs.

The Pressure Loop

preparation, thoughts, goals, body language, focus, effort, perceptions, reactions, emotions, images
audience, competitions, coaches, judges, placement, injury/illness, arena/field/gym conditions, competition order, parents, equipment, friends, falling/messing up

Here is an example of the Pressure Loop in action:

A male volleyball player who worries that his coach will pull him from the game if he makes a mistake will be very distracted when he plays. This worrying may actually cause him to make a mistake and then get pulled from the game by his coach, reinforcing his worst fears. However, neither of these things- making a mistake or his coach’s actions- are within his control.

To perform at their best, an athlete needs to learn how to shift her internal focus. Before the next game, the athlete could try to stay calm and focus on something that will help their performance, like the skills to be executed or how the athlete’s to react to mistakes when they happen in a game.

What coaches and parents can do:

Demonstrate healthy coping skills in your own life. Examine how you deal with stress, change, feelings, and conflict in your life. Do you address the issues directly or do you avoid them and distract yourself? Do you spend time upset about things that are out of your control? Do you have coping mechanisms that are effective for you without hurting your body?

Let the athlete know that their feelings and problems are important. Listen to what an athlete isfeeling. Validate what the athlete says by listening (make eye contact, stop what you are doing, paraphrase what they have said to you, and respond appropriately to the feelings). Remember that we can be supportive without agreeing with someone.

Taking Action:

Avoid trying to solve an athlete’s problems. If a solution is really going to work (and if the athlete is going to learn skills to solve future problems), it has to come from them. Support the athlete as they search for solutions, offer possible resources, help clarify desires and needs by asking questions that keep the focus on them.

Help an athlete set challenging but realistic goals and to compete with themself. Create the opportunity on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis for athletes to jot down their goals and what they will do to achieve them. Encourage each athlete to listen to their own bodies’ strengths and abilities when setting these goals.

Provide your athletes with perspective. When an athlete comes to you with a problem or concern, validate how they feel. Point out something positive about the situation to help them gain perspective. Soon the athlete will be able to see how even so-called failures contribute to success as an athlete and as a person.

Make sure injured athletes get the rest and care they need. Only a medical professional can diagnose the severity of an injury. If an athlete needs to sit out in order to fully recover, help find positive ways to cope with not being able to play. Getting resources about the injury, setting goals for recovery, using mental imagery to aid healing and finding ways to stay involved with the team are all tools athletes can use to cope positively with injury.